Review | Eden’s Outcasts: by John Matteson

Father & Daughter Biography of A. Bronson & Louisa May Alcott

What an amazing source of understanding as a follow up to my recent reread of “Little Women”. Eden’s Outcasts is a dual biography of A. Bronson Alcott, 19th century philosopher and educator, and his daughter, Louisa May Alcott. This 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning read reveals the essential connection between the two. It is the story of a family’s struggle to live their lives with meaning. It’s really a family biography – mother, Abba; father, Bronson; and four sisters, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May.

Fruitlands, the 19th Century Artist Colony

The book takes the reader back to 19th century Massachusetts, a place of intellectual grandeur. During Louisa’s youth, the famous Alcott was her father, Bronson, an eminent teacher and lecturer. The Alcotts, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller were all in the same place at the same time. They were all sharing philosophical thoughts and actively participating in societal change (condemning slavery, war, greed and convention). Bronson established Fruitlands, an American utopia outside of Harvard, Massachusetts. His managing of the communal society failed after only eight months. Emerson, a lifelong friend, critically observed a flaw in Bronson Alcott.

“He is quite ready at any moment to abandon his present residence,employment,his country, nay, his wife and children, on very short notice, to put any new dream into practice which has bubbled up in the effervescence of discourse.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

During Louisa’s teen years, she and her sisters received essentially no formal schooling outside of the home. Instead, Louisa read Dickens with her family, poured over Goethe in Emerson’s library and scrambled through the woods with Thoreau. These Hillside years, following Fruitlands demise, correspond to the adolescence celebrated and fictionalized in “Little Women”. On her fourteenth birthday, Abba gave Louisa her first pen. A recognition by her mother of Louisa’s already growing and developing talent.

Matteson has done the historical research to enrich the background stories throughout the period of Louisa’s life (1832-1888). From John Brown and opposition to slavery, to Civil War military hospitals, to women’s right to vote, the Alcotts were involved in the changing times.

Louisa used her real life experiences to create her characters and stories. Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, sums it up exactly.

“Her experiences influenced her writing, manifestly mellowed and deepened it; she could not have touched a million hearts except from the depth of her own.”

Julian Hawthorne

The Marches of “Little Women” are the Alcotts of Massachusetts.

  • Oldest Alcott sister – Anna – Meg March – marriage minded
  • Second Alcott sister – Louisa – Jo March – successful author
  • Third Alcott sister – Lizzie – Beth March – contracts a fatal illness after helping a poor family – dies at 22 years of age
  • Youngest Alcott sister – May – Amy March – artist
  • Bronson Alcott – Mr March – a father who is often absent but adored
  • Abba Alcott – Mrs March (Marme) – a loving and supportive mother with a temper to control

Like Jo March, Louisa would “fall into a vortex”, when and where nothing else but writing mattered. She would retreat into her creative place. Louisa’s principal school of ethics in “Little Women” remains the home. Jo exclaims, “I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world.”

orchard house -the alcott’s home – where louisa wrote little women

Louisa’s fame grew and surpassed that of her father. She had the foresight to design her writing to market to the reading public. As a writer and business woman, she often wrote to fill literary niches for income. For Louisa there were two dominating reasons for being successful at writing; to earn her father’s approval and to assure her mother’s comfort. Louisa saw her father as deeply respected but never deeply known.

Louisa and Bronson shared a birthday (33 years apart) and in 1888 died within forty hours of each other. Both were interred in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts, in the corner known as Author’s Ridge.

This book is written so well that it is a pleasure to travel through the years of Louisa May Alcott’s life. On page 309, Matteson summarizes, “In much of Louisa’s writing, the emotional keynote is not unreflective joy, but the darker, more durable happiness that comes from hardships bravely shared.”

Published by Audrey Newhall

I am an avid reader and contributor to Penna Book Reviews

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